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Dubs can fire warning by shaking Red Hands

DESPITE a busy schedule of action in headquarters last weekend, the football championship is still, in my opinion, waiting for a team to step out of the ordinary and produce a performance that will put them in pole position in the race for Sam Maguire.

Kerry certainly swatted away Limerick with relative ease, but they hardly frightened the life out of their semi-final opponents.

Mayo, meanwhile, showed more heart for the fight against Cork in a brilliantly executed victory, but from past experiences you wouldn't put the mortgage on the westerners for consecutive big-game performances.

On the other side of the draw, Donegal did unto Kildare what Kildare have often done unto others, grinding them down with a solid defensive wall that frustrates rather than illuminates.

Up for grabs

So with one spot in the All-Ireland semi-finals still up for grabs, could Dublin or Tyrone throw off the shackles this Saturday evening and lay down a serious marker that 2011 will be their year?

Twelve months ago as I stood behind the draw drum in Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarterfinals, the teams I probably wanted Dublin to avoid were Kerry and Tyrone, teams who had dished out heavy beatings to the Dubs in the previous two seasons.

In the dress rehearsal I drew Kerry, smiled and thanked my lucky stars we weren't ‘live'.

Twenty minutes later when the draw went live to air, yours truly plucked Tyrone from the provincial winners bowl, setting in motion a 24-hour period of ‘textual' abuse with the overriding message that I had just ended Dublin's championship aspirations.

A year on from that surprising, yet morale-building, victory over Mickey Harte's troops, Dublin travel to Croker as an entirely different proposition, showing signs of continuous progress throughout 2011.

Beaten only once in competitive games and with a structured system that makes them very hard to break down, Pat Gilroy won't thank me for saying it, but they will probably start as favourites, a position Dublin have not always found themselves in when it came to meetings with the top teams over the past 10 years.

Tyrone on the other hand have stuttered and started throughout the year, and while quietly progressing through the qualifiers and still a very formidable team on paper, have considerable mileage in the legs.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say they are in a rebuilding stage, given the wealth of experience that still pertains in the team, we are starting to see the older warriors make way for new talent.

A quick look at their starting line-up from last weekend versus that which started against Monaghan in their opening Ulster championship games shows a dramatic shift in forward personnel where the old guard of Martin Penrose, Stephen O'Neill (curtailed by injured) and Owen Mulligan were replaced in the inside line by Tommy McGuigan, Mark Donnelly and Kyle Coney as manager Harte looks to try and get the blend of youth and experience right.

While up front Harte clearly has plenty of options, defensively he is still very reliant on the likes of Conor Gormley and Joe McMahon, who at times last weekend were chasing shadows as Donie Shine and Senan Kilbride thrived on quick early ball.

It's not something this Dublin team do particularly well, but accurate, early foot passes into Bernard Brogan with brother Alan supporting him have the potential to cause big problems for Tyrone, as defenders get isolated against the pace of the Dublin attack.

Slow ball will pull Dublin into a game similar to that of last year where they managed to hang in and catch Tyrone with a sucker punch (Eoghan O'Gara's goal) when the result could so easily have gone the way of the Red Hands.

Hunting

If players back themselves to deliver a 30/40-metre foot pass, it will make it very difficult for Tyrone to implement their gameplan of hunting in packs.

The one key area that I believe Dublin will need to dramatically improve on if they are to see off Tyrone's challenge is their pressure on the ball-carrier.

Against Wexford in the Leinster final players were too content to drop back behind the 45-metre line waiting for the attack to get to them, rather than pushing up and working the man in possession of the ball.

This concession of space, especially in the concluding 10 minutes of the game, is putting big pressure on a tiring defensive line and as the margins for error grow ever smaller as the opposition become more savvy, has the potential to be the undoing of all the good work that has gone before it.

While the favourites tag may sit with Dublin, Mayo proved last week that passion and desire outweigh all else, and if Dublin needed a warning that Tyrone will be fired up for this encounter, then Ryan McMenamin's post-match interview after their victory over Roscommon when he said they had one eye on renewing acquaintances with Dublin as soon as the quarter-final draw was made should trigger alarm bells.

I fully expect Dublin to deliver a big performance on Saturday and believe that the intensity they play at will see off Tyrone.

However, unless their tendency to leave the door open for the opposition has been properly addressed it could be edge-of-theseat stuff until that final whistle.


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